This month, Dew on the Grass features writing and artwork based on the theme of “An Unexpected Visitor”. Our first piece is by Chris Yeomans and in it, she explores ways in which we are conditioned in our reactions to situations and how the practice of Buddhism throws light on this, leading to a change in our responses.
The doorbell rings and the dog rushes headlong from one end of the house to the other, barking frenetically. A man and a woman with a leaflet. ‘The Watch Tower.’ Jehovah’s Witnesses.
My mother, a woman of decided views, hated them, and I realise that my deeply hostile reaction to them comes directly from my childhood. I do feel hostile towards them, but I reflect that actually I know next to nothing about them, and my views and reactions are based purely on learned behaviour which I have never questioned. I look up what they stand for, and realise that there is almost no common ground between us and that much of what they believe and practise is alien to my own beliefs and practices. But I didn’t know that when my opinions and reactions were formed.
Years ago, I would have told them, forcefully, to go away, and I would have shut the door in their faces. More recently I have resorted to telling them that I am a Buddhist and have no interest in what they have to say. More recently still, I think that perhaps it would be a good plan at least to try to model the basics of the practice, and I speak more gently, explain that I am a Buddhist and suggest that they are wasting their time. Sometimes they react as if they have seen the devil incarnate. Perhaps for them, it seems so.
All of which has led me to look at my beliefs and opinions and to realise just how much has come to me from my mother, even if only in such a way that I am instinctively opposed to something that she would have supported. Like the Conservative Party. Very few of my critical and judgemental beliefs are based on any extensive knowledge.
That is one of the things that allowed me to become involved with Buddhism. Somehow early on I was either told or read that it was permitted, even encouraged, not to blindly accept what anyone said about the practice. That the true way was to try it for myself, to open myself to experience and to see where it led me. In other words, to accept nothing unless it seemed to be true to my own experience or in some other experiential way to have truth in it.
Of course, this way, the whole business becomes subject to the person that is me and so is refracted through my individual body/mind. There can be no other way. But I have also learned that what is true for me in the way in which my beliefs are formed, must also be true for others because of the way in which their beliefs are formed. So, if another’s beliefs differ from my own, I am more inclined to let it be and to remind myself that that person cannot really help the way they think and feel any more than I can. Each of us has a different body/mind, a different education, a different culture, a different pre-disposition.
Sometimes it’s hard. There are certain beliefs that I continue to think are simply wrong. Particularly if they seem to me to do harm to others. But at the very least I can be more tolerant and more understanding that the holders of these beliefs come from a different place and are as much victims of their own brains as I am.
But I still won’t be reading ‘The Watch Tower’ any time soon.